Friday, May 29, 2015

Reading Wisely and Well (Part 2): Steps to Achieving a Close Reading of a Passage in Its Scriptural Context

Continuing my tips for reading Scripture wisely and well...Read Part one here
5. Read multiple translations. I recommend that interpreters use at least three different translations during the process of close reading. Make sure that you choose translations from different translational families. For example, little is gained by comparing the KJV with the NKJV. Avoid paraphrases. At minimum, the deployment of multiple translations will serve as a guard against a simple misunderstanding of the English. But more importantly, comparing translations will guide you to the seams that exist between translations. By seams, I mean those places where the exegetical difficulties present in the original show up in the form of tensions between translations that otherwise remain hidden underneath the uniformity of a given English translation. Look specifically for substantive differences between translations. Make sure that you understand the interpretive options presented by the different translations. Ask: How do the differences in translation change the meaning of the passage? For example, Genesis 1:1 reads classically in the KJV, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” In some modern translations, v. 1 is understood as a clause dependent on the verse or verses that follow. The NRSV is representative of newer translational approaches, “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth,….”[1] At stake here are questions of the biblical understanding of cosmology and its relationship to its ancient near eastern context.[2] Reflect on the ways that the differences in translation seem to resolve interpretive issues. 

6. Reflect on the meaning of individual words. A couple of warnings: a) Don’t assume that you understand the meaning of words. When in doubt, always spend the time in word study. b) Don’t abuse the principal of “Scripture interprets Scripture” in defining words. It is folly to cite the meaning of a term used by one author when we are studying the writing of another. A classic example is the definition of faith. The writer of the Hebrews explicitly describes faith (Grk: pistis) in this manner: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Heb 11:1). Without a doubt, this is one of the clearest definitions of pistis in the Bible, but it is methodologically problematic to accept this as the definition of pistis in every other context. Words have meanings in relationship to the other words around them. Moreover, each biblical author may emphasize a different nuance of a word’s meaning. c) Don’t mistake common English definitions for a word for the meaning of a Greek or Hebrew term. For example, the Great Commandment or Shema contains a number of words that can be misinterpreted in translation. Deuteronomy 6:5, which reads in English translation, “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” Popular interpretations read these common English terms through a matrix more in line with Greek psychology and modern romantic sentiment than with Deuteronomy’s own ancient context. Study of the Hebrew (and cognate) usage suggests that “love” is in fact a covenant term exhorting committed obedience. “Heart” focuses on the center of human volition and rationality and not on the center of emotions. “Soul” is not the spiritual aspect or the “authentic” core of a human person, but instead Hebrew nephesh is descriptive of the totality of a person including the physical body. “Strength” is really better translated “everything else” or even “and then some” as it functions to intensify the seriousness and totality of the call to love God. Moreover, rather than suggesting three parallel spheres or attributes of loving God, “heart,” “soul,” and “strength” form a concentric structure that emphasizes to a superlative degree the whole-person commitment involved in “loving the LORD.”[3]

If you missed part one, you can Read Part one here

[1]The NRSV lists two additional alternatives in footnotes: “When God began to create…” and “In the beginning God created….”
[2]For discussion of the four principal ways on construing Gen 1:1-3, see Terence E. Fretheim, God and the World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (Nashville: Abingdon, 2005), 35
[3]See the masterful exegetical study of the manifold issues present in the text by S. Dean McBride, “The Yoke of the Kingdom: An Exposition of Deuteronomy 6:4-5” Interpretation 27 (1973): 273-306.

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